Giannis returns, Bucks get back on track with 131-121 win
NEW YORK — Giannis Antetokounmpo forgot for a moment that Milwaukee had reduced its magic number to one for clinching the NBA’s best record.
Once the Bucks have it secured, Antetokounmpo can get some extra rest before the playoffs.
He isn’t interested.
“Because I love playing basketball. I just love playing basketball,” Antetokounmpo said.
“Rest is not in my dictionary. I just love playing basketball. If I am healthy and I can play and I can help my teammates, I am always going to play and help my team.”
That’s what he did Monday night, finishing with 28 points and 11 rebounds in his return from an ankle injury to help the Bucks beat the Brooklyn Nets 131-121.
Eric Bledsoe added 29 points, reserve guard George Hill chipped in 22, and Brook Lopez and Sterling Brown each scored 14 for the Bucks, who played without All-Star forward Khris Middleton because of soreness in his left groin.
Milwaukee was unable to clinch the best record because Toronto won earlier Monday.
D’Angelo Russell had 28 points and 10 rebounds for the Nets, who remained seventh in the East after losses by Detroit and Miami.
Their defeats took away some of the sting for Caris LeVert, who went 8 for 15 from the field with 24 points off the bench.
The Nets host Toronto on Wednesday followed by a visit to Milwaukee on Saturday.
“You can’t place pressure on yourself. These games are fun,” LeVert said.
“It’s what we worked for all year. It’s what we worked for it all summer, for these moments right here. Super fun for us, especially because we control our own destiny at this point.”
Milwaukee got off to a quick start and led 35-13 lead with 1:39 left to play in the first quarter. But Brooklyn stormed back with a 28-6 spurt to go up 42-41 on DeMarre Carroll’s layup with 5:53 remaining in the half.
There were 16 lead changes in the third and for a while it seemed like the short-handed Bucks, who only dressed nine players, could be facing another loss after falling Sunday in overtime.
“Character is something we talk a lot about and something we really value,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said.
“Your character comes out when you face a little bit of adversity, which I think we did tonight. I don’t think we always had the best response to it, but ultimately I think the character does come through and we were able to get a little bit of separation and win the game.”
Antetokounmpo, who had 14 points in the final period, put the Bucks ahead 101-91 with a three-point play with 10:21 to go.
Brooklyn cut it to four after LeVert scooped up a loose ball for a layup before Antetokounmpo led a 7-0 run with a pair of baskets to increase the lead to 121-110 with 4:11 to play.
“They got into us. They looked fresh and rested,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said.
“If you really look at it though, it was all about the first quarter. They overwhelmed us.”
Bucks: The Bucks earned their 26th road win, tying the 1980-81 team for the third-highest total in franchise history. … The Bucks improved to 3-0 against the Nets this season to clinch the season series. They have won the last five season series.
Nets: DeMarre Carroll scored 20 points. . Joe Harris had 17 points, going 5 for 7 on 3s. He’s averaged 18.2 points and 5.6 rebounds over his last five games
Before taking the Brooklyn coaching job, Atkinson spent three years as an assistant in Atlanta for Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s first-year coach.
Now both are considered candidates for the Coach of the Year award.
Budenholzer, who won the award in 2015 after leading the Hawks to a franchise-record 60 wins, isn’t surprised at the job Atkinson has done and enjoys watching the Nets from afar.
“I would love for Kenny to be Coach of the Year,” Budenholzer said.
“I think he’s very deserving, and what he’s done here the two or three years — three years — he’s been (here), the culture, the way they compete, the way they play both ends of the floor.
“He’s incredibly deserving.”
Bucks: Visit the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night
Nets: Host the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.